`Home Ec' Moves With the Times

Besides stirring and stitching, home-economics programs try to teach broader life skills

`JUST because you're a woman, you're expected to innately know how to cook and sew," says Ann Holsinger, a former home economist in Hanover, Mass. In the past, this stereotype projected the image of home economists as people - mostly women - who merely focused on stirring and stitching.

But in today's world, a large number of women are seeking professional careers in such traditionally male fields as medicine and law. Not many women are interested in home economics, an area of studies that was popular in the '50s and '60s. Faced with this challenge, practitioners of home economics are restructuring their field in hope of attracting more people.

"When I went to high school 20 years ago, the home-economics programs were geared toward women who would not be going to college but would be getting married and starting a family. [But] right now, the focus is more on career development and socialization," says Kristen O'Brien, a home economist and spokeswoman for USA Rice Council, a nonprofit organization promoting the consumption of United States-grown rice in the United States and abroad.

About 260 universities and colleges in the US currently offer home-economics courses, often dubbed "human environmental science" or "consumer and family economics."

Home economics usually includes five areas of concentration: food and nutrition; family studies; home management; home furnishings and design; and textiles and clothing.

"Home-economics classes across the country are changing with the times," says Alicia Montecalvo, spokeswoman for Future Homemakers of America (FHA), an organization for junior-high and high-school home-economics students nationwide. "Not so many of our programs focus specifically around cooking and sewing," she says. Instead they focus on leadership development and career exploration.

"Home economics is more needed than ever before, given the family crisis in the society," says Sherry Trella, coordinator of home-economics programs for public schools in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Trella is designing a new course called "Life Studies," a program that will focus on different styles of families and parenting in the community to help teach students how to avoid or cope with a breakdown in families.

Some high schools offer courses with names like "Contemporary Living" that deal with topics ranging from drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and teen suicide to family budgeting and parenting.

Ms. Trella says male students often are reluctant to join classes like sewing. Recently, she was helping a group of eighth graders make flags of different countries. This was the students' first time using a sewing machine. Some of the boys said that sewing was only for girls. She told them, "Some of the greatest people who sew are tailors. Those are usually men." That ended the boys' reluctance and they did a great job, she says.

Some high-school and junior-high boys are interested in taking cooking classes. This course is popular with kids because they can have parties with their friends at home, Ms. Holsinger says.

About 15 percent of FHA's 269,000 members are male, Ms. Montecalvo says, and the number is increasing.

Men are becoming more interested in the subject of food and nutrition because it provides job opportunities - for example at health clubs, where men can work as nutritionists, says Margaret Potter, who teaches home economics at Framingham State College in Framingham, Mass. Still, only 25 of the school's 366 home-economics majors are men.

Overall, the school has seen an increase of 8 to 9 percent in enrollment in food and nutrition courses over the last five years.

The clothing-and-textiles area also is popular among students because many are interested in fashion merchandising. But interest in different majors is cyclical. It's a "pendulum swing," Professor Potter says.

For some people, continuing to work as a home economist is not easy. Holsinger, who had specialized in clothing and textiles for many years, says she was discouraged by the lack of appreciation for her profession.

She worked with women who sew in their homes and helped them establish businesses. But many of her clients couldn't make a go of it. "People didn't want to pay for custom work," Holsinger says. After 23 years, she is no longer in the field.

A number of high schools and colleges nationwide are closing home-economics programs because of financial problems. Some schools think that home economics is something they can do without, Potter says. "I think that's an unfortunate decision, because particularly in high-school home economics, students are learning life skills. And if they don't want further education, this is their last time to learn [some of those skills]."

As long as there is a great emphasis on family issues on the national agenda, "there certainly is a future for home economics in the United States," says Mary Beth McFadden, spokeswoman for the American Home Economics Association in Alexandria, Va. She says the association has about 17,000 members. Even though the membership has not increased in the past few years, more job opportunities, especially in the business world, are opening up.

"We do a lot of work behind the scenes," says Kathryn Moore, a home-economics consultant in Kansas City, Mo. The recipes that consumers follow from the back of cereal boxes or the instructional manual showing how to use a food processor, for example, are usually the unsung works of home economists.

A growing number of home economists work for corporations as consultants, says Marlisa Bannister, executive director of Home Economists In Business (HEIB) in Westerville, Ohio. Home economists develop recipes for food companies such as General Mills. Others are employed by consumer-appliance companies such as Whirlpool for testing their products. And some home economists are working for women's magazines such as Good Housekeeping.

HEIB has about 2,500 members; a majority of them focus on advising food producers on nutrition; working with home-appliance manufacturers in testing products and drafting instruction manuals; and public relations. These professionals earn between $15,700 and $50,000, according to HEIB.

Home economics "is a viable career," Potter says. But young people today graduating from a college home-economics program have to be willing to look at nontraditional applications of their skills, such as working for a social-service agency - an area, she says, into which home economists have not yet moved significantly.

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